Worldbeaters: Rodrigo Duterte

Philippines
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© REUTERS/Alamy Stock Photo

Job: President of the Philippines

Reputation: The Dirty Harry of vigilante politics

The election victory of Rodrigo Duterte in May 2016 was an unpleasant surprise for anyone who cares about human rights on this island archipelago. At 71, he is the oldest president ever to ascend to the luxurious digs of Manila’s Malacañang Palace, which is enough of a track record to give a sense of what he is about. Duterte made himself a reputation while mayor of Davao City for several terms (starting back in 1988) as a tough crime fighter who is not overly concerned about legal niceties, even embracing extrajudicial killing. It is widely believed that there have been more than 1,000 such killings in Davao of alleged criminals and those involved in the drug trade under his watch. He has survived in the ‘wild south’ of Philippine politics, which is replete with criminal gangs, Islamist separatists and Maoist radicals. He boasts of having turned Davao City from a murder capital to ‘the safest city in Asia’.

The Filipino elite centred around the Liberal Party expected an erratic Duterte to self-destruct during the election campaign, but despite spouting homophobic and sexist rhetoric and hinting he would join in the gang rape of an Australian aid worker, his popularity never faltered. Ironically, he also claims to support LGBTI rights. Despite (or maybe because of) his womanizing machismo, he drew increasingly huge crowds to his rallies, dwarfing those of establishment politicians. It is tempting to compare Duterte to Donald Trump – both shoot-from-the-lip populists with unstable and ultimately reactionary tendencies. But Duterte’s appeal goes beyond that of the privileged tycoon with the comb-over. He comes from Mindanao, one of the poorest parts of the country, and rails against the privileges of the 55 Luzon-based families that have long dominated the political scene. He is contemptuous of the wealthy elite – 40 families control an estimated 76 per cent of the country’s wealth. He prefers to speak in his native Visayan dialect or accented English rather than the Tagalog of the Manila set. He presents himself as a man of the people who has consistently turned down positions of influence in suspect governments, and a staunch nationalist willing to stand up to both the Chinese (over territorial disputes in the South China Sea) and the Americans (over general military bossiness).

His policies include a decentralization of power allowing more say to disempowered parts of the country. He eschews traditional Left/Right characterization, stating he would appoint former communists to run such sensitive areas as agrarian reform and social welfare. Even the Maoist Communist Party has thrown its weight behind Duterte. He claims to put poverty reduction at the centre of his political preoccupations. Like many populists, his politics are vaguely open-ended and contradictory, allowing those desperate for change to read whatever they desire into his ever-shifting views.

Duterte represents a particularly Filipino variant of the ‘strongman’ anti-politics that is becoming so common in the second decade of the 21st century, from Budapest to Moscow. This seems a peculiarly male beast (Marine Le Pen excepted) born of violating political correctness (read: respect of others and the toleration of difference). It stereotypes opponents and offers up simple-minded solutions to complex problems that almost inevitably fall flat. When this happens, democratic norms are violated to quell dissent and opposition. It is worth remembering what Duterte said at a post-election press conference on the question of murdered journalists: ‘Just because you’re a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination... most of those killed, to be frank, have done something. You won’t be killed if you don’t do anything wrong.’